Growing Up Oakland: Interview with Toni Ratliff

Read more about Growing Up Oakland, a project entirely created and run by Oakland Youth Poet Laureate poets. 

As a part of Growing Up Oakland, Oakland youth interviewed adults who grew up in the city. These interviews have served as jumping off points for poems in youth poetry workshops and also as breathing histories of Oakland through time. Here is a full interview between Leila Mottley, 16, and Toni Ratliff, 38, used in Skyline High School workshops:

Full name: Antoinette Andrea Ratliff

Leila: Where did you grow up? what neighborhood? what time period?

Toni: North Oakland. 56th Street. In the 80s.

L: Do you have family in Oakland? Is your whole family here?

T: Yes, actually. My mom and dad’s side of the family lived on the same street. On 56th street. So my grandmother lived over here with my mom and all her siblings and then my dad’s family lived across the street and down, but on the same block.

L: And did both of your parents grow up in Oakland? And their parents?

T: Yes. Um, my mom’s parents both grew up in Louisiana. And my dad’s mom...I don’t know.

L: Do you know what brought your family to Oakland?

T: California had the reputation for having better opportunities for black people.

L: Do you think they found that to be true?

T: Probably, compared to where they were. Yeah. Because my grandmother moved from Louisiana to Texas and then from Texas to Oakland.

L: When you were a teenager, where did you spend most of your time?

T: Emeryville Public Market, baby.

L: All the teenagers hung out there?

T: No, no, just the nerdy ones. The bookstore [Borders] actually, if I’m keeping it real. And then there was a movie theatre right there, so you could catch the bus really easily.

L: What high school did you go to?

T: Holy Names.

L: What was your high school like? How would you describe the people and your experience?

T: Well, I have to back up a little bit, then, and explain my elementary school because I went to a Catholic elementary school, but it was predominantly African-American population in that school. And, so, when I got to high school it was way more diverse than I was used to. But that was good--it was diverse in a good way, I was just exposed to more than I was in my elementary school. But I also noticed that it was pretty segregated. Like most of the white girls hung out with the white girls, most of the black girls hung out with the black girls. And I found this group of people that didn’t do that and so there was a Mexican girl, a white girl, a black girl; our group was very diverse, but we would all pop in and out of the other groups, like “you know, we can hang with you guys, but you guys only hang with each other. That’s weird, we’re gonna hang over here too.”

L: Do you think that reflected your experience outside of school too, where most things were segregated and you looked for the integrated pockets?

T: Well, no. I mean, I feel like most of the people I hung out with outside of school were black. And so, in school, I was like “oh, hey, I see you in school, we’re friends. We didn’t make time to hang out outside of school.”

L: What was your neighborhood like?

T: Black. It was described--I remember this because my grandmother was really upset by it--it was described as a “run-down part of Oakland” in the news, because something happened and they were like “in the run-down part of Oakland” and she was like “ hey! That’s right down the street from our house. That’s not okay.” I didn’t feel like it was a run-down part of Oakland at all. I did realize, once I got to college, that litter is not a norm everywhere, you know, little things like that where I was like “huh, it’s not grimy most places. That’s interesting.”

L: Did you have a lot of friendships in your neighborhood?

T: I’m gonna say no, to be honest, mostly because I was not cool enough--like they wanted to do stuff and I was like “you’re not supposed to be doing that and Imma say something. Don’t hop that fence ‘cause that’s not your yard,” you know? So I grew up in my grandmother’s house and my cousin grew up on the same block and we would go hang with the neighborhood kids, but they were always like, “ugh, why are you always bringing your little cousin, she’s just gonna tell on us.” And I’m like “well maybe you shouldn’t be doing that.” So, no, I had like one friend on that street and then she moved and I didn’t have any. But I had a lot of cousins, so I didn’t feel lonely.

L: What was your favorite part of Oakland when you were growing up? And why?

T: Well, when I got to high school, me and my mom moved out of my grandmother’s house on 56th Street and we moved to 40th Street and Telegraph. Between Telegraph and Broadway. And I was just like “it’s awesome over here. Like, it’s so cool. There’s pizza down the street and there’s this over here and that over there. And all the buses and MacArthur BART was right there, so it was super close. Easy access to a lot of different things. I liked that the bus stops were really close by. I don’t think I thought about that that much, I was just like “this is where I live.” Later, my husband has such pride in San Francisco, every time somebody says San Francisco, he’s like “alright, alright!” and I’m like, “really?” I just never felt that. When I was younger, I would rep my street or whatever. That was my connection. Like “‘where you from?’ ‘Forty-one-hundred.’” Like, I’m from Oakland. I had an appreciation for other places and I never felt like Oakland had the best burgers or the best ice cream or the best blah blah blah.  It’s just like, this is my homebase and I go out and explore other places. This is home and then you go out and visit the world.

L: Who influenced you most when you were growing up?

T: My grandmother and that’s funny, because I was very confused as a child because of her, actually. Because she didn’t identify as black. She’s Creole, so her skin was lighter, but her hair texture was like my hair texture. Watching the news she’d say stuff like, “ugh, those black people” and as a child, growing up, I didn’t know what that meant. I was just like, she’s saying “those black people” so I’m not….I asked her one day, “aren’t we black?” and she was like “no, honey, we’re peach.” So, I literally thought that was a thing, went to school and people would ask me because they couldn’t tell since I used to wear my hair straight and I wore more make-up so I got mistaken for Mexican a lot. So they’d be like, “where you from? What are you?” and I’d be like, “I’m peach.” And it took one of my cousins being like “no,” ‘cause it was my grandmother, you can’t tell me she’s wrong; that’s my grandmother!

L: How do you think people perceive Oakland?

T: I think Oakland has a negative reputation most places that you go, unless they’ve been there. Unless they’ve seen that those things aren’t true, it has a really negative reputation. Like sometimes when I tell people I’m from Oakland, they’re like, “oh” like they’re surprised that I am from Oakland. I think the perception is changing because the population is changing.

When I got to college--it was Saint Mary’s College so it wasn’t far from here but it felt really far to my family in Oakland--it was really small, not very diverse, so all of the black people at least knew of each other, we knew each other. And I remember going out. Me and my other friend from Oakland were like “okay, we’re gonna take you guys to Oakland and we’re gonna go to the movies, we’re gonna go to Nation’s. We’re gonna take you to all the hot spots.” So there were two cars and my friend was like “we’re gonna take them through East Oakland.” You know that street that’s like: houses, houses, cemetery? So we drove them just past that ‘cause it was fun, ‘cause that’s normal to me and growing up we didn’t realize that it was unusual to have a cemetery in the middle of a residential area. Usually it’s off in the hills or a scenic area. So we took them past that and the other car was calling us from their car like “what the hell? Where are we? What is happening right now?” And so we took them to a liquor store and we were like, “we’re gonna eat here: food and liquor, see? It says food and liquor.” And they were like “what?” Some of our friends were from L.A. and they were really scared because of the reputation of Oakland. These are like football player guys and they were like “uh uh, my jacket’s blue though. Should I take it off? ‘Cause there’s gangs in Oakland” and I was like “you’re gonna be fine” and he was like “no, for real, I’ll take it off” and I was like “you don’t need to take off you’re jacket.”

Then we got to Nation’s and it was a Friday night, so it was packed, ‘cause it was the one on Broadway that’s really small. So it was packed and there was a lot going on and they were like “we don’t feel comfortable here, we should go, there’s too many people” and I was like, “but you guys are from Compton” and they were like, “no, no, no, Toni. Our hoods are poor, yours are dangerous.” That’s the distinction they made for Oakland. And I’m saying, “I don’t wanna go to your neighborhood because Compton’s got a reputation” and they’re like “no, no, no, everyone’s just broke in Compton. We don’t have guns. Your hoods have guns. I should take this jacket off, I don’t wanna get shot.” But just seeing that these big, tough black guys from a hood in California were still scared to be in Oakland, out on a Friday night--we really did not eat there, I forget where we went, but yeah.

L: Did you stay in Oakland? If yes, why? If no, why not?

T: I did not stay in Oakland, actually. I went to college in Moraga, which was so so far away. And then, after college, I lived in Pleasant Hill for a while. It was lovely, except there weren’t enough black people for me to feel comfortable. And I didn’t realize that was a thing because of what I was used to and then in college I knew that was unusual, this is not reflective of the real world, we’re seriously outnumbered here. So, we lived in Pleasant Hill for while and then I started feeling like, I’m tired of getting excited when I see another brown person on the street. That’s when me and [my husband] decided to move to Oakland, when we moved in together. He wants to live in San Francisco and I hate San Francisco and that was before the rent prices were outrageous, it still felt possible for normal, average people to live in San Francisco and I was like no, I don’t want to live there. So we compromised because Oakland is near San Francisco.

L: Do you think disliking San Francisco is a common Oakland thing?

T: I remember we went on a field trip in elementary school to San Francisco and we had some free time, so me and my friend stood in the doorway of wherever we were supposed to be and we were just waving at people on the street and they were just giving us really crappy looks and I was like “I don’t like San Francisco. I feel uncomfortable right now.” ‘Cause, in Oakland, I feel like people would smile back or you’d get a positive response.

L: Where do you work? How is your work environment different from your home environment?

T: [A preschool]. When I started at [the preschool], I used to tell people here “I live in Berkeley, I don’t live Berkeley.” I’m from Oakland, not Berkeley. I found that a distinction I needed to make for myself. And, over time, it’s been 8 years now, I can’t say that anymore. I’m composting, I’m looking at my eco footprint more, I’ve tried to go gluten-free a couple times. Friends who’ve known me since elementary school see me and are like “wow, okay, you’re just all in Berkeley now.”

L: In 5 words, what does Oakland mean to you?

T: Lake Merritt. Zachary’s. Family. History. Resistance.

L: What was Lake Merritt like? What did you do at Lake Merritt?

T: Aw man, okay, you’re too young for this, they don’t do this anymore. Festival at the Lake was a real thing that used to happen once a year at Lake Merritt and they would shut down the streets around Lake Merritt and it was a huge festival with concerts and food venues and all this stuff and it got so violent and crazy that they shut it down because, the last time that I went, I actually saw a mob of guys moving together as one surround a girl and then move on. She had no clothes. That was insane. I was like “who’s gonna help her?” She got swallowed, groped until her clothes were gone. I was probably twelve and I was with my dad and my sister, so I felt safe, but I was like, “who is she with? Who’s going to help her?”

I remember going again when I was fourteen and I was with two of my friends and we were walking past an area they blocked off because they didn't want people there. And there was a fence and guys were just standing  along the fence and as girls walked by they just grabbed at their bodies. You knew if you walked past there, you might get groped. And then they would do sideshows sometimes and stuff like that. And then they stopped doing Festival at the Lake, but it turned into every Saturday was like a mini Festival at the Lake and police would just have to be over there. Things like that would happen at the Lake, but also really fun family-friendly walks around the Lake and hanging out there with my friends and that kind of stuff.

L: Did you feel connected to that history of resistance growing up?

T: No, not until I was older and not living there did I really understand because of my family. My family moved from Louisiana to Texas to here and my grandma’s parents didn’t teach her the Creole language because they wanted her to assimilate and just fit in. And I think the culture they were trying to fit into, they said it was Catholic, but I feel like the culture they were trying to assimilate into was white culture. They didn’t talk to me about what the world is actually like, I just had to learn it from experience.

L: You mentioned the police. What was your relationship with the police?

T: My relationship with the police when I was growing up in Oakland was very much “they are the people who bring my grandfather home after he’s gotten drunk somewhere” so I didn’t see them as a threat, necessarily. They seemed like they were there to help and then once I got to high school, when I started hanging out with more guys who had gotten into trouble with the police, I was like “oh, some people feel really strongly that the police are dangerous.” And personally I might have gone into law enforcement and then in college I did an internship with the ATF. My experience with law enforcement hasn't been negative enough for me to be like “I hate those police.” But then, living with [my husband], he has experienced that and he is such a loving, patient, caring, positive person, so for him to be like “I hate cops,” that says a lot.  there was a time when they were like “we’re looking for a black guy, get on the ground” and they put their knee in his back and that happened and I was like “oh my God, I’m scared for you.” But at the same time I know black police officers…it's just another group of people. There are good people and bad people in all groups.

L: Do you have children? How do you think your experiences growing up have influenced the way that you raise them?

T: Yes, I do. I have two children. I think it's interesting for my kids because [my husband] is identified as a black man in the world, but he’s Samoan, culturally in every way. Like, he didn’t see Roots, he didn’t watch Shokazulu on TV when he was growing up and I was like, “that’s what all black people did, what do you mean? It comes on every year, you watch Shokazulu, that’s just what you do.” And he was like “I’ve never seen it.” He wasn’t familiar with some soul foods, he’d never had cornbread. They’re Samoan, they don't eat that. [My husband’s] family is so much bigger than mine and they get together so much more than mine, I feel like [my kids]  are getting so much of a bigger influence from their Samoan side, so we have a lot of conversations about “what am I?” [and I say] “you’re Samoan and you’re black, but when people see you they're going to think you're black. So if you want them to know, you're going to have to tell them you’re Samoan.” We also have conversations about what Creole means. We pray in Samoan together sometimes, so for them I think a lot of it is about navigating that experience, which I didn't have to do when I was younger because we didn't talk about it.

Also, they go to a school like the one I went to where it's predominantly African-American, so they  see a lot of faces that look like theirs when they go to school everyday, but then they also come here [to Berkeley] where they don't. The fact that they live in Berkeley and they go to school in Oakland is already so different from my experience where I lived in Oakland and went to school in Oakland, so it was like brown people, brown people, brown people everywhere until I got to high school. They are exposed already to so many more cities then I was, whereas I was just in Oakland all the time. My mom did not go to San Francisco until I needed a prom dress and we got lost in San Francisco. Everything you need is in Oakland, you don't have to leave. But, my kids, their grandmother lives in Fairfield, my mom lives in Sacramento, we have family that lives in Fresno, their God-sister lives in Las Vegas, so they’ve already been to so many other places. They’re spread out more.

L: If you had to pick a favorite street in Oakland, what would it be and why?

T: Martin Luther King. We lived on 56th and MLK, but also, my school was down that street--40th and MLK--so that was the street I would walk up and down. Is it the nicest street? No. But when I get there, I’m just like “that’s the corner store where I used to get all my candy and that’s where my uncle used to work and that’s where my school was, when we caught BART we’d go there and yeah.

L: What was BART like? Was it the same?

T: Oh my God, no, it’s so different now! I got on BART last year to go to San Francisco and it was ridiculous how different it was. Like everybody was on their phones, earbuds. So different, so different. I feel like I was guaranteed to talk to at least one person somewhere along my way on BART and [this time] I didn’t interact with any human beings the whole time and it was very isolating and weird compared to the last time I went on BART. I remember this one time when me and my friend were riding BART to go to Target to get stuff for college in El Cerrito  and this guy was like “y’all cousins, huh? I could tell, I could tell.” And me and my friend couldn't look more opposite. He just struck up a conversation and I don't think that would happen anymore.

L: What about bus? AC Transit? Same? Different?

T: Well, now you can get on the back, you don’t even have to go in the front or interact with the bus driver. The seats are all different:  they used to all face forward. They're structured differently so there's less interaction there too.

L: Did people use cars or public transit more?

T: I don’t know, I feel like  life is so different now that I have kids and a car. I feel like when I was growing up a lot of people caught the bus, especially because I was in a little bubble, living in Oakland and going to school in Oakland, everything in Oakland. Once I got to high school it was like, no, lots of people have cars but also a lot of my friends caught the bus to school and caught the bus back. Now I feel like Uber’s available, so I don’t know, I feel like people don't feel the need to have a car the way they used to. Teenager’s now are like “I don’t need my license” and when I was growing up, that was the thing. There was a movie about it: in the 80s where this guy just wanted his license so bad, that was the premise of the movie. Everybody got it, even if they didn't have a car. Very few of us had a car, but we all had our license, just in case.



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